March 10, 2011

Veterans agencies punish for-profit school with Fort Worth campus

They accuse Westwood College of being predatory and deceptive.

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FORT WORTH -- The U.S. Veterans Affairs Department and the Texas Veterans Commission have yanked a for-profit school with a Fort Worth campus from its list of approved colleges for student veterans, accusing Westwood College of predatory and deceptive practices.

The decision by the VA and the Veterans Commission is the latest blow to Westwood, which has been pilloried, investigated and fined by the government in recent years for what officials say are questionable or deceptive recruiting and enrollment practices.

Westwood Colleges of Texas has campuses on North Freeway in Fort Worth and in Dallas and Houston. It is owned by Denver-based Alta Colleges Inc.

"It's both unfortunate and shameful to see an institution of higher learning behave so inappropriately toward those who've served the country," wrote VA blogger Alex Horton, a veteran of the Iraq war. "Hopefully this conduct by Westwood College will be the last instance of a school engaging in similar deceptive tactics driven by profit motives."

Representatives of Westwood Colleges said that they have made numerous fixes to the admissions process after the government's criticisms and said that they do not target veterans. They said less than 5 percent of the college's students are veterans using the GI Bill.

"We will continue to work with the Texas Veterans Commission to resolve this issue, as we have successfully done with the Texas Workforce Commission," school spokeswoman Kristina Yarrington said in a statement. "We have matched dollar-for-dollar what these students would have received from the VA education program or assisted in transferring their credits to another eligible institution."

Approval rescinded

The Texas Veterans Commission is under contract by the VA to monitor and approve the institutions that receive VA funding for education. In September, commission officials suspended Westwood, then made the move indefinite in December.

"In this case, we felt we had no choice but to rescind their approval," said Connie Jacksits, director of the commission's education program.

The ruling affected 90 student veterans, according to commission spokesman Duncan McGhee. Sixty veterans left the colleges and 30 remained, he said. An official with Westwood said the college matched their VA benefits, including the living stipend.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which took effect in 2009, all but ensures that veterans, or in some cases their spouses or children, can have all of their tuition, fees and books covered at a college or university. Living stipends are also provided.

Veteran enrollment has spiked at area colleges such as the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Arlington and Tarrant County College.

But the VA also reimburses for-profit career schools. Officials have said that the VA has no intention of eliminating for-profit schools from the approved list but that veterans need to examine promises and sales pitches closely.

Previous penalties

In January, the Workforce Commission fined Westwood Colleges in Texas $41,000 for high-pressure recruitment tactics and administrative failings. The colleges got to keep their licenses on a probationary basis.

Last summer, the Government Accountability Office issued a report extraordinarily critical of Westwood and other career colleges in Texas, and several members of Congress have pushed for better accountability of for-profit colleges, which are receiving tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds through the GI Bill.

In the wake of the reports, Westwood officials said they stopped using incentive-based pay for admissions counselors, retrained their admissions employees and hired an outside firm to conduct secret spot checks of what admissions counselors are telling prospective students.

Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547

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